Saturday, August 04, 2007

An Overdue Review: "Transformers"

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as a raw chicken left on a sunny window-sill in August for a couple of days)

It’s been several weeks since the debut of this summer’s uber popcorn movie, “Transformers” and the pain in my neck from having to watch it from the third row of the theatre in the first week of the run has just about gone away. But it was worth it!
The movie is director Michael Bay’s live-action re-imagining of the classic 80’s cartoon about the ongoing battle between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons.
In the original, an eons-long war between the two factions had drained their home planet of Cybertron of almost all of its “energon” resources – and thus the giant robots’ fuel or food if you will. In a desperate bid to find more energon to carry on the war, some of the Autobots flee in a starship but are hunted down by the Decepticons. In the ensuing battle, both vessels are damaged and the Transformers crash onto a primordial Earth. Millions of years later, an earthquake causes their machinery to reactivate, leading to the Transformers’ reawakening and the resumption of their war amidst modern-day humanity.
Bay’s version continues with the tradition of the Transformers letting their internal disputes spill over onto other worlds. But quite a few of the details change. We’re told Cybertron’s environment has been damaged by the civil war and we get the impression that consequently that world is pretty much uninhabitable. Thus the hunt for something called “the cube” – an ancient device of unknown origin that creates life. Kind of. Both robotic factions seek to possess the cube to tip the balance of the war, and in their quest, they track it to an unsuspecting Earth. The Decepticons waste no time in wreaking havoc to find they information they need to uncover the artifact. The Autobots are a bit more subtle, choosing to remain undercover during their own investigations, only coming out in full force in the open for the battle of the climax. Caught in the middle of it all is teenager Sam Witwicky, who just wants to get a nice first car and the affections of the girl of his dreams, but who unknowingly possesses the key to finding the ancient bone – er, cube of contention.
In typical Bay fashion, Transformers is a nearly non-stop orgy of action punctuated by snappy dialogue and effective one-liner humour and sexy leading ladies for the young hero (and the audience) to ogle. The special effects for the metal titans are top-notch. The actors do a capable job. And, best of all, Peter Cullen was brought back to reprise his role as the voice of Autobot leader Optimus Prime. In short, this flick is a modern teenage boy’s ultimate fantasy, or an 80’s action cartoon fanboy’s wet dream.
And the new version deserves bonus points for some of its details: I won’t spoil exactly what it says, but pay close attention to the decal on the side of the Decepticon police cruiser. Bay’s SFX guys have also finally resolved the major inconsistencies the old series had with conservation of mass: guns and cassette decks becoming giant robots. In this version, a portable stereo, no matter how evil it may be and no matter how great its ambitions, transforms to a height of about 4 feet rather than 50, and yet remains a respectable badass and capable spy in his own right. Also, extra geek points for the method the robots use to find new alternate forms: in the old series, the AI satellite Teletraan 1 scanned human technology and adapted the robots during repair to fit the forms they’d be mingling with on Earth and that would best suit their personalities and former functions; in the new movie, the robots seem to impress upon nearby vehicles that they encounter first and suit their needs. In this way, they’re rather like the later-generation Transformers of the “Beasties” series, which imprint on the first animal detected when their pods crash land. I don’t know if the Beasties parallel was intentional or accidental, but kudos anyway.
But there were also a lot of problems with the flick. One look at the robots in their natural anthropomorphic form, as they emerge from their crash craters, and (as others have noted) you have to doubt they’ve got the proper design to actually transform into anything, let alone a car, tank or jet fighter. Then there are the extensive changes that have been made to the characters of many of the Transformers themselves: Prime is still a semi (though a different kind of rig than his original cartoon form) and Starscream remains a fighter plane, but most of the others bear little resembling to their old namesakes. Bumblebee is now a Mustang, rather than a Volkswagon Beetle. Ironhide is a Hummer rather than an old van. Jazz remains Prime’s lieutenant, but he’s only Jazz in name. Now, instead of having a voice that would sound like it might belong to an old jazzman, like Scatman Crothers in the original, he’s got Darius McCrary voicing him as a rapper/hip-hop artist. The writers should have just renamed him MC or something like that and to make a better impression that he’d been re-imagined, rather than keeping an old monicker with a new, inappropriate voice. Another nitpick note was the unanswered question of why extreme cold seems to stop the Transformers in their tracks. Megatron is frozen in the arctic and later imprisoned in what’s basically a big-ass freezer. The nasty government types (led by John Turturro – in his undies, no less!) take down Bumblebee with ropes and blasts of cold. But, wouldn’t the Transformers have to survive the deep cold of space to travel from planet to planet in their search – especially Megatron, who’s new form is some kind of space fighter! And what’s with that crazy cosmic cube? Why does bestow life upon machines, but kill any robot that stuffs the thing in its chest? Too much raw power?!? Sounds like someone’s too drunk on energon! Too little thought to plot, more likely! And when it does animate various pieces of machinery around it, why, when they suddenly transform into robots, are they evil? I mean, I can kind of understand why the pop machine is diabolical – those things do steal coins from people all the time, so, it makes sense that they’d be inclined to up the stakes a little bit with some rocket fire, etc, but the other machines? Why would they go on a rampage? Wouldn’t they be just as likely to belt out “Happy Birthday!” like a newly-awakened Frosty the Snowman? And lastly, there’s something really wrong with the last scene of the movie: the young hero who’s finally go the girl of his dreams gets to snog on a hilltop overlooking the town with a beautiful sunset as the backdrop… but they’re on top of his car – his intelligent car, and a bunch of his car’s buddies. It’s like they’re necking in front of a crowd. Haven’t these big ‘bots ever heard of a human concept called privacy? I mean, hey, maybe young Sam and his girl are exhibitionists, and if that’s their thing, then fine, but personally I’d find it a bit creepy. How many of us have a tough time getting intimate with out significant others in front of the stares of the bewildered family pet, let alone a gaggle of extraterrestrial automata?
But in the end, the many faults of the movie just can’t outweigh its simple, mindless fun. Not only is “Transformers” worth the full price of admission, it was worth the pain in the neck I picked up watching it. Now, how can I get my printer or dishwasher or something to transform into a masseuse to rub away the sore spots?

Footnote:
Perhaps the best part of the Transformers getting such a blockbuster movie made is that it’s given me many, many opportunities to get a rise out of unsuspecting and, these days, largely ignorant fanboys with Gobot jokes, a-la Randall in Kevin Smith’s “Clerks II”.
Most of the current movie’s fans weren’t old enough to have seen the Transformers or the Gobots in their original TV runs, and so just stare blankly when the latter are referenced, requiring the “Clerks II” explanation that Gobots are “the K-mart of Transformers”.
But it’s inflicting Gobot references on old-school fanboys that’s most entertaining, just to see them froth in fury. Best example so far: I asked my brother what watching the Gobots was like at the drive-in theatre out in Langley. His response: “Gobots. Sheesh. It's not a transformation when all you do is stand up. Ironhide needs to go bust some Gobo-chops!”
That’s the kind of ferocity normally reserved for the Star Trek vs. Star Wars crowd. Pointless, but occasionally entertaining.
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